Toghurt: the great white hope:

The humble yoghurt has existed for so long that its origins are obscured by time. Fermented dairy products in general have probably been consumed for as long as humans have had domesticated milking animals. Ancient Eastern nomadic tribes are known to have preserved milk from cows, sheep, goats, horses and even camels. These nomadic tribes would carry milk in containers made from their animal’s skins or stomachs and the bacteria from these containers would ferment the milk, making a denser and richer beverage – yoghurt.

Over time, yoghurt spread to the Mediterranean and with the ongoing wars between the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, yoghurt became common in the entire West. The first Arab recipe-books detail the uses of yoghurt which was even present in the fabled banquets of The Arabian Nights. Fermented milk appears in the Chronicles of the Crusades and is a traditional food for such distant cultures as the Zulus, the Russians, the Kalmyks and the Hindus. In many of these cultures yoghurt was revered for its healing powers and modern research only serves to further cement the reputation of this time honoured food.

Yoghurt is made by fermenting dairy milk with the addition of bacterial cultures such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus casei. These bacteria cause the conversion of complex milk sugars called lactose, into the simple sugars glucose and galactose with the production of lactic acid. This process causes the thick texture of yoghurt and gives it the slightly tart taste that a good quality yoghurt should have. It is this bacterially driven fermentation process that gives yoghurt its many special qualities.

Digestive rescue

Lactose intolerance is a common reason to avoid eating dairy products – yoghurt being one of them. This does not need to be the case. The fermentation process of yoghurt means that most of the lactose is already broken down. The effect of fermentation makes yoghurt a product that can almost be considered ‘pre-digested’. The bacteria that convert milk to yoghurt have already done a lot of the work that our digestive systems would otherwise need to do. So, if you are lactose intolerant and have been avoiding yoghurt – give it another try.

Irritable Bowel Disease is another digestive condition that all too many people are familiar with. If you are one of these people then yoghurt may be just the thing for you. Research had found that daily consumption of probiotic yoghurt for 30 days significantly reduced inflammation in people with Irritable Bowel Disease. This would seem to support the long held belief that yoghurt is indeed ‘good for your digestion’ but there is some debate about whether the ‘good bacteria’ in yoghurt survives past the acidic environment of the stomach. A study was set up in Italy to test just this and it was found that, amazingly, these tiny bacteria do indeed make it past our internal acid-bath. Another study went further and managed to show that ‘good bacteria’ makes it to the intestinal tract even in people with lactose intolerance.

Beyond breaking down lactose, the fermentation of yoghurt has also been shown to improve the quantity, availability and digestibility of several dietary nutrients. Already a good source of calcium, phosphorus, B2, B12, B5, zinc, potassium, protein and molybdenum, the fermentation process of yoghurt increases the available folic acid, niacin and riboflavin levels. Further, the lowered intestinal pH achieved by the lactic acid helps to discourage ‘bad bugs’ including Salmonella spp and strains of E. coli. And, for those with poor digestion, the bacteria in yoghurt are thought to assist in the breakdown on proteins into free amino acids and fats into short chain fatty acids (SCFA). These short chain fatty acids in particular are thought to be protective against colon cancer.

Eat yoghurt to live longer

Amongst other healing properties, it is thought that yoghurt may contribute towards longevity. This was suspected even by early travellers due to the long life spans of tribes where yoghurt was a regular dietary feature. A recent study tracked 162 elderly people for 5 years to test this hypothesis. They found that this hypothesis did indeed seem to be valid as the group who consumed yoghurt and milk more than three times per week had a 38% lower death rate.

Boost the immune system

Several studies have supported the notion that yoghurt benefits the immune system. One study found that daily consumption of yoghurt stimulated cellular immunity. Cellular immunity is our body’s primary means of protection against viruses, yeasts and parasites and is also critical in the prevention of cancer development.

Good fats

In a study of 16 women, it was found that the consumption of 100g per day of probiotic yoghurt improved cholesterol levels or, more specifically, lowered LDL (bad cholesterol) and raised HDL (good cholesterol)

Research is also indicating that yoghurt consumption may improve weight loss. One study published in the International Journal of Obesity indicated that adding one to two servings of yoghurt to your daily diet can help you to maximise fat loss and minimise muscle loss. There is speculation that this result may be due to the high calcium content in yoghurt as another study has correlated an increased fat oxidation (burning) level of 20 per cent after one year on a calcium-rich diet.

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published an article indicating that eating full-fat dairy products, including full-fat yoghurt, significantly reduced the risk of colorectal cancer. This study followed over 60,000 women for just under 15 years and the women who ate at least 4 servings of high fat dairy foods each day were found to have a 41 per cent lower risk of colorectal cancer.

If you have let the humble yoghurt drop off your dietary radar then there is no time like the present to re-instate it as a regular feature. When choosing a good yoghurt, avoid the low-fat varieties which tend to be higher in sugar. Make sure you choose one with live bacterial cultures and, as always, choose organic for a super-clean, super-healthy, convenient and tasty treat.

Kate Mirow is a Naturopath practicing at Your Health in Manly – an Integrative Medical Centre. Kate uses herbs, homoeopathy and nutritional supplements as well as dietary and lifestyle advice to assist her patients back to health. Email Kate at kmirow@yourhealth.com.au or phone her clinic on 02 99777888.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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